Thursday, October 28, 2010


Sometime, between about 55 and 60,
the herd begins to thin itself.
And it’s the herd I’m in.

I THINK OF THIS as I motor across the valley floor on what is a now-familiar route. Back to the east, a few shafts of morning sunlight slip over the mountains and under a low ceiling of clouds. In moments, the promise of daybreak will be gone, absorbed in the velvet layer of moisture that blankets the region and renders the landscape gray. The morning is not warm, but it is not cold. I am in the midst of a netherworld – a neither-this-nor-that environ – similar to the one separating last night’s wakefulness from sleep. It’s a good thing I know this road.

I wonder, as I advance into the next turn, if Aunt DaVonne is somehow in a netherworld of sorts: unwanting of the oxygen tube forcing the breath of life into her, but equally unwanting of the alternative. Today, I’m told, for the third or fourth time in the too-recent past, the device supplying O2 will be removed. “Can’t keep the tube in there too long or the lungs will forget how to function.”

I EXHALE THROUGH MY NOSE and the inside of my Shoei helmet's visor fogs. The road disappears. Riding blind at 55 to 60, I push upward on a tab to crack open the face screen. The condensation melts away. Again I see the muted colors of the mid-autumn landscape. The valley’s beauty subdued. Its aromas of fermenting grass stubble and derelict melons have soaked into tiny, leaden water droplets that fall to the ground. A fence line parallels the road. Its wooden posts, once erect, tilt at odd directions, bases rotted away, suspended by the strands of wire the posts, initially, had been engineered to, themselves, suspend. Two hundred yards west, the fence disappears. But it never goes away. For as long as I choose to be aware, the fence continues, always disappearing into the gloom. Always two hundred yards ahead.  And I smell moisture.

MY MIND WANDERS to the netherworld – the ill defined place between the here and now and the somewhere else. I wonder who populates this undefined place: who they are, how long they might stay, where they might be headed; but mostly: are they still with us?

THE ROAD RISES from the valley floor and into that low blanket of cloud cover. Its cloak thickens. Then, after a distance, as the pavement twists and sweeps upward, the mantle disappears. The fence is gone, too. Ascending, I pass the familiar concrete dam on Putah Creek and its reservoir, then through stands of valley and blue oaks and thickets of scrub. The road dips into pastures of golden grasses recently laid flat by the rain. The land here is sectioned off. More fences. Country folks scratch livelihoods, raising dry vineyards or irrigated pasture or, maybe, a Christmas tree farm. A paintless, weathered barn balanced on an ancient rock foundation and its attendant cattle shoot faces the highway. Back from the road a distance, a derelict Atlas moving van with faded lettering and an artful curve to its prow provides covered storage for silage or equipment. Primitive, scrabbly dirt roads exit to the left and right of the pavement, curling around knolls and into hidden and, perhaps, enchanting homesteads. Each one is gated to protect what’s in there from what’s out here.

Topping a ridge, I find slivers of blue sky, but only slivers. Thin cirrus ice crystal arrays, harbingers of tomorrow’s storm, already lace the highest atmosphere. Though the temperature has slightly risen, when I snap closed the Shoei’s face shield, my breath fogs the damned thing up.

I stop to wipe it clean, pull out my word processing device and begin to type these words. Kind passersby see the BMW propped at the side of the road with one pannier open. They pause to ask if I’m okay.

I am, I say, thanking them.

THIRTY MILES AWAY, a loved one has, by now, been freed of her ventilation. She is no longer in the netherworld between self-supported breathing and not. I hope to see her in the next hour or so, but wonder if somehow, we might have passed along the way this morning.

Then, damn it all, I think about the thinning herd of which I am a part and realize: Auntie DeVonne is, too.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Monday, October 25, 2010


FOR DECADES, I have carried small spiral-bound notebooks around in my shirt pocket keeping shopping lists, directions, phone numbers, project dimensions, notes on road conditions, and story starters or random thoughts for later use.

Today, in policing the house, I uncovered more than a half dozen of these primitive Palm Pilots. I set myself to purging any page that had writing on it, saving only the aforementioned random thoughts. Most of them, I think, are original and they are listed here:

  • You can’t be getting your nails done and cry poor at the same time.
  • I’m a little ticked off about anger management.
  • Being stupid protects people from getting old.
  • If you set the bar just so, everybody can do excellent.
  • Lord, grant me the enough wealth to be enlightened, but enough creature comforts to not have to bother.
  • The less well read a person is, the more sure they are of their beliefs.
  • Decisio-terrorism:  The act of sabotaging a decision arrived at through group consensus.
  • Arrange the facts to support the conclusion.
  • How do we avoid what happened before and what do we create when we do?
  • Not all who grow grapes should make wine.
  • The end of an appointment cannot be before it starts.
  • The closer they are to chickens, the better children will behave.
  • The grass may not be greener, but you still may want to hop that fence and chew on it a while.
  • Defensible decisions receive support because they are defensible decisions - not because somebody asks for the support from colleagues or underlings.
  • People, forever, will fall short of expectations they do not know exist.
  • Where does a UPS truck go to die?
  • Get even: be the reason the other line moves much faster.
  • Prosperity is not what one can afford, but what one can afford to give away.  
  • I was workin’ on learnin’ a song when you walked through the door.
  • There are 100 routes from here to there.  Just find ‘em.  Heck, just find one.
  • An idea, well proffered, moves giants.

THE GOOD NEWS is that I now have eight or nine little notebooks with varied numbers of blank pages in each; all ready for more service in support of my weakened faculty for remembering a thought. Or a grocery list.

Friday, October 22, 2010


ONE SUMMER AFTERNOON we built a rope swing with an old Firestone tire we’d dug out of the creek bank. We had to toss a line over a branch about a mile up in the sycamore tree on the west side of the house. Didn’t get it over at first. Had to tie something on the end of the rope so we could get the heft to fling it over.

First we tried a smooth, old river rock with a big, fresh chip in one side that had just been plowed up out back in the orchard. Every couple of tosses the rock slipped out of the loop we’d cinched around it. Once it hit Vanella – Nilley we called him – on the side of the head and he went home crying.

Switched to dad’s hammer, which I’d snuck from his workshop. A beautiful, old, leather-handled Estwing. Grip worn to a shine from years of various around-the-house jobs. Dad came pedaling home – rode his bike to work: we only had one car – and told us that wasn’t what the hammer was for. We rightly figured he meant crow bars, vice grips, pipe wrenches, hand axes – just about anything else that could be found in the shop – as well.

There was this galvanized metal bucket out back of the house that mom used exclusively for hauling ash from the Franklin stove out to the orchard. I swiped it from where mom kept it. We tied one end of the rope around its bail.

Muster, another kid from the neighborhood, said we should fill it “this much” full with water. So we did. Old Musty swung the bucket like the pendulum on the cuckoo clock in our dining room, back and forth. Back and forth. Each time a little bit further. Soon he was making great, sweeping circles with the water bucket at the end of the rope.

Then, using this magical boy judgment that some kids possess, he let the rope slip and race through his dirty palm at just the right instant. The bucket rocketed skyward, arcing and clearing the branch on the very first throw and falling to earth with the water exploding out of its busted bottom when the bucket hit the ground.

Soaked hurrahs were sounded all around. And slaps on the back. Musty was a genius! A real whiz!

Nilley, by now, had come back – a red bandanna wrapped around his forehead – and stood a distance away at the property line leaning on the white rail fence.

Both ends of the rope were in kid hands. While I tied the muddy, black-side-wall Firestone to one end of the rope, Calvert, a kid from next door, shinnied up the great sycamore tree and wiggled out on to the limb. He hoisted up the other end of the rope, did a couple of wraps with it and tugged on it a couple of times. Finding things secure enough to suit the mind of an experienced boy of ten or eleven, Calvie dangled his legs off the limb, found the rope with first one foot, then the other, slipped his butt off the branch and descended the rope hand over hand.

The once derelict tire now hung about two and a half feet off the ground and since Nilley looked so forlorn but so interested, Calvie waved him over. In the gathering dusk, he enjoyed the first ride.

I DON’T THINK WE USED THAT ROPE SWING for more than the waning hours of that summer day and a little bit of the next. To be sure, we spent more time engineering the swing than we ever did riding it.

We get together now, the fellows of that industry – except for Nilley: AIDS overtook him five or six years back. The rest of us, Calvie and Musty and me, we get together and drink beer and smoke cheap cigars. Proving we’re big boys now.

We talk about good jobs and bad politics, failed marriages and lingering loves. And tell a few jokes. Never have talked about building the swing in the sycamore tree. Hell, I may be the only one who even remembers the whole event.

I keep meaning to ask Calvie, when I see him, why – if he could shinny up a tree to secure a dangling line to a branch about a mile up in the air – why we had to dedicate an otherwise perfectly fine summer’s afternoon to trying to toss that damned rope over the tree limb in the first place.

But by the time I remember the question, the party’s broken up and everybody’s gone home.

© 1997, 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


A MID-MORNING NECESSITY in Napa finds me racing westward across the floor of the Sacramento Valley. Seventy-five miles behind me, the sun has crept over the summit of the Sierra. The season’s first drenching rain occurred yesterday and extended into the evening. This morning’s rays work to slightly warm the air and dissipate the season’s earliest Tule fog.

Life had dealt Auntie DeVonne a bad hand. An internal infection needed to be staved before an operation could repair the faulty heart valve. The abscess, however, wouldn’t respond to antibiotics and the infection’s growth now inhibited respiration. During the storm last night, DeVonne “coded.” Something much more invasive was necessary. But what of the weakened heart? According to the surgeon, Auntie’s circumstance was “like being on the third floor of a house where the first floor was totally involved in flames. You can wait around or you can jump out the window. I’ve got the net.”

There would not be time for breakfast on the road this morning. Or pictures.

COUNTY ROAD 31 beelines west from Davis. Once out of town the farmland looks laser flat. In the slightest depressions, cool air pools. Clinging, earth-bound sheets of gossamer fog mark these low spots: rimmed silver on top by the rising sun, but filled with icy daggers as the rural road slices through. Even with the heaviest of riding gloves the chill, like an x-ray, finds each of the 54 bones in my hands and tries to freeze them – and their connecting tissue – solid.

Under the broadening expanses of clear sky, yesterday’s rainfall begins a fermentation process on fresh wheat stubble in the neighboring tracts. The air assumes a sugary fragrance, as the landscape outside the fog pools turns golden. A field of rotting watermelon smells particularly pungent and rich. As does the windrow of eucalyptus planted several yards south of the pavement just beyond an irrigation canal. The BMW’s on-board thermometer reads 48 then 50 then 52 degrees. My black leather jacket absorbs some early morning warmth and an involuntary shiver transfers it to my body.

Straight ahead, the lower reaches of the Vaca Hills of the Coast Range bask in this just-past-dawn early light. But the season’s first storm had been significant. Up the mountain, fresh moisture soaks the top few inches of soil and the lower few feet of atmosphere. Vaporous wisps fill the east-facing hollows of seasonal creeks that may have come back to life. At the crest, a bounteous pure white blanket of moisture lay peeking over, so much like disheveled bedclothes pushed back against a footboard after a raucous and intense night of passionate and long-awaited frolic.

Sure enough, once over the little nameless pass and into the Monticello Valley where now rests Lake Berryesa, the sun’s work has not begun. The road enters the bank of fog, perhaps never to exit this day. The cold x-rays work against my hands to stiffen them and render them numb all the way to Napa. But the recent warmth and sweetness of the Sacramento Valley at dawn lingers and comforts me.

AND CONTINUES to do so as I sit outside the ICU, awaiting word.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Wednesday, October 13, 2010


I'll get you, my little pretty...
...and your little dog too!
- Margaret Hamilton
circa 1939

SIX O’CLOCK on a Monday. Middle part of October.

I am in the quick check line. Local Super Market. My night to cook. Take ‘n’ bake pizza. Baby carrots. And some odds and ends. Whole bean coffee. Bag of English Muffins. Half gal of ice cream. You know, guy stuff.

The line is delayed by a price check.

Attractive women frequent upscale stores such as these. Knowing this, I partake in a clandestine past time and scan the line behind me.

YES: BEHIND ME. An older woman. Two, maybe three customers back. Dressed in darkness. Cloistered in walking calamity. Slightly hunched.

Quick details. Nose: small protuberance, left side. Cheeks: Rouge over putty. Eyes: sunken, red, poorly over-lined with yesterday’s mascara. Fingers: gnarled, arthritic, worn.

Her withered bosom rising and falling with each clattery breath. Clutched against that bosom: five red aerosol cans. Two of whipped cream. Three of Raid.  Bound up in a plastic produce bag and pinched into the crook of her elbow: one perfect red delicious apple.

My bones shudder, joints seize with cold. A spasm jolts me, neck to tailbone. I inhale but cannot expel the breath.

Turning stiffly toward the checker, caring not one whit about paper or plastic, I pay for my purchase and leave.

I do not look back, what with my knowledge of Lott’s wife and all.

I DON’T KNOW. It just kinda scared me…

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Monday, October 11, 2010


[October 2003] IN QUINCY, CALIFORNIA, where the old Western Auto store used to be, the Oroville-Quincy Highway heads out of town following Spanish Creek a little ways and then cuts over the ridge to Haskins Valley and Bucks Lake. Bucks is a gorgeous high mountain PG&E reservoir that we used to frequent when I was a kid. A family in the neighborhood had a chalet up there.

Their son, two years my senior, told me that three workers died in the construction of the dam. As an eight-year-old, I pictured their bodies in suspended animation in the rock and concrete. I never wanted to set foot on the dam itself. It gave me the creeps. All dams do. To this very day.

The Oro-Quincy Highway is the back way home from Bucks Lake, the alternative to Highway 70. It twists around ridge ends, crosses logged clearings and splices stands of Doug Fir and Ponderosa Pine. Within twenty minutes, one descends several ten- to thirteen-percent grades from high, white granite to thick, oaky mixed woodlands and chaparral. The highway winds down past Lake Madrone, to Berry Creek, and past the turn off to Feather Falls.

Continuing down the hill toward the Sacramento Valley, the route crosses Lake Oroville on a new suspension bridge almost directly above where California’s first suspension bridge originally spanned the Feather at Bidwell’s Bar, the ancient seat of Butte County. The historic old bridge was moved to be the centerpiece of Oroville Lake’s interpretive center. It warrants a visit.

BACK IN THAT HIGHER COUNTRY, a piece of granite (or basalt or some mixture thereof) is nestled in the waist-deep manzanita. About the size of a small house, it looks as if it were carved into the shape of a frog poised and ready to jump about twelve-and-a-half miles to the ridge on the other side of the Middle Fork of the Feather.

Forty years ago, in our 1954 Ford Ranchwagon, we were rattling our way to the friend’s family cabin on Bucks Lake up the “graded” (read: “horribly unpaved”) Oroville-Quincy Highway when we found this formation.

“Looks just like a frog,” my brother Bill exclaimed.

Dad stopped. We got out and crawled all over it. Chafed our bare knees and wore raw the heels of our hands on that rough, crystalline granite. Then we stood. In the distance were mountain peaks and dainty lakes that would fascinate us for a lifetime. As kids, we could see forever. Hell, we could touch forever from the top of that rock if we just closed our eyes and imagined. I didn’t however. I didn’t want to lose my balance, fall off the rock and end up like those guys inside the dam.

SINCE THEN, THANKS TO THE U S FOREST SERVICE, the road has been nicely paved, but the manzanita hasn’t added more than another six inches: the growing season so short that the pines and firs haven’t yet made root-hold.

This October day, the sky was bright blue. The air cool enough to moisten the nose and stab the lung a little bit, but sweet as only true mountain climes afford. The morning chill had melted so I could switch off the heated handgrips. My black leather jacket absorbed some sunshine. A young bald eagle circled overhead.

Aspens told me that the first frost had occurred – but everything else told me it wasn’t winter yet.

And the Great Frog Rock? Well, it is made of rock.

DAD HAD STOPPED. So could I. Again I would chafe the heels of both hands.

From atop Frog Rock there were 360 degrees of ridges, forests and granite outcrops. I could see and feel forever – touching distant peaks I’d now climbed and dainty lakes I’d now paddled.

Forty years vanished.

A journey on the road is not always of the road.

© 2003, 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Saturday, October 9, 2010


WHILE DIRECTING TRAFFIC in a crowded school parking lot, the principal halts traffic in one direction so that cross traffic may pass. The woman driving the first car asked to wait, guns past the school official and offers him a middle finger salute. Her children are strapped into the back seat.

Rounding the corner from the drive-thru window at the local Starbucks, a driver tosses a drink carrier from the window into the ice plant. “That’s littering,” he is told by a customer. “Hey,” he said, “They don’t provide an accessible trash container.” “So?” The situation deteriorates into profanity as his wife and children watch.

A parent refuses to allow his child to attend social studies class if any mention of Islam is to be offered during the state-sanctioned teaching of comparative religions. The parent tells the student to stand up and walk out of class if the subject comes up. “I’ll take this to the Board of Education!” the parent threatens.

BULLYING, AND ITS DEVASTATING EFFECTS, has, again gained national attention. And we immediately focus on what we should do to or for our kids to prevent it. Here’s a different thought: We will not stop bullying in our children until we call adult bullies on their behavior. People will behave stupidly so long as we allow them to.

When the principal – who happened to be me – recounted the incident in the parking lot in a school newsletter, two mothers quietly came in to the school office, independently, to apologize for their actions in the parking lot. Neither was the individual who I saw flipping me off. Still neither will probably do it again.

As the driver at Starbucks pointed to me for interceding saying, “F--- off, pal. She’s the one who’s giving me s---!” I picked up the carrier and stuffed it in the available garbage can. (Not, perhaps, where I might have liked to stuff it.) The driver knows he got caught. Maybe, in the future, he’ll think twice.

The school parent’s child must be served in the public schools regardless of handicap or behavioral issues, but the school is under no obligation to change the state sanctioned curriculum to suit the narrow focus of one individual. This parent should be told to take the child elsewhere. “Please get an attorney, dad." (The school district will win this one.)

THE CHURCH OF THE OPEN ROAD is deeply troubled by the stupid among us, because the stupid among us:
  • Vote
  • Drive automobiles
  • Can own firearms, but mostly because they
  • Have children.

If we gently remind the stupid among our adult generation that their behavior is offensive or out of line – and if we do it in a manner that doesn’t prompt us to lower ourselves to their level of stupidness – perhaps we will contribute to a subsequent generation of citizens that can overcome the self-centeredness, aggressiveness, abusiveness and bullying they unfortunately see in their own homes.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


“I can teach a fencepost to read, but I’ll be damned if I can teach your son literature.”

Mrs. Lundin – commenting to my mother (over a glass of wine) 
about me as a student in her high school 
literature class: circa 1970

BEFORE THE ADVENT OF THE WORD PROCESSOR, weren’t we more measured in what we wrote? Didn’t we choose the elements of language with a bit more care? I’m not a student of literature. Mrs. Lundin, my 12th grade literature teacher would attest that I was likely one of her biggest career failures.

True to her concerns, it has only been since I retired from education that I’ve found the time to read much of anything. I started with popular fiction. Stuff I’d missed. Series stuff. Best sellers from the New York Times. I made sure to read a modern work of fiction - a mystery - written by an author I'd met whose final MBA project was to create a successful business plan. Her plan: To write a commercially successful novel. The result? A 300 page sit-com.  There must be more compelling reasons to read, I thought.

Then I picked up a book Mrs. Lundin had hoped I’d understood some forty years back: Huckleberry Finn. I read slowly. In part because of the dialect Samuel Clemens had mastered and used. In part, because the story was a little like an onion. The more I understood, the more I peeled away, the richer the experience became. Each sentence had something to say. Each took me deeper. My pace slowed. I didn’t want to miss a syllable. And my appreciation grew. Man, this guy can write! How many revisions must Sam have done in order to create this masterwork?

BACK IN WYOMING a year ago, I purchased a copy of The Virginian by Owen Wister. Published in 1913, it is a difficult book to read, partly because the language of 100 years ago is not the language of today. The Virginian is not a novel one simply breezes through. Between its covers is exposure to the wide-open landscape of the wide and wonderful Wyoming high grass range. Morning sunrises that shiver. Long saddle-bound days that ache. Conflict that grows to be played out over months, not moments. And character: character that came to define the persona of the western cowboy and the West itself. Did it just spill out this way or did Wister write and revise and rewrite?

Mary Austin is an essayist who was transplanted from Ohio to the rugged Eastern Sierra by her husband-doctor who hoped she’d give up on being a writer and take on the honorable role of wife and mother. Her collection Land of Little Rain draws upon her explorations of the Owens Valley and the high Sierra around the turn of the last century. Paragraphs that are page length or longer describe in explicit detail a squall creeping across the ironwood basin or the nature of a starving coyote stalking for the kill. Just as Wister defined the character of the western man, Austin defines the character of the landscape.

I DON’T LIKE READING SLOWLY. Or, I didn’t. Now I don’t like reading crap.

I look at what I write and realize that’s what I write. In part, because I have so many skills still in need of refinement. And, in part, because I haven’t exposed myself to good literature. (You win, Mrs. Lundin.) I have something like a shoot first and ask questions later methodology about my work. I blame a computer-as-crutch syndrome because anything I publish today, I can fix tomorrow: correct the errors, whittle on a sentence, or just change something for the hell of it.

Mark Twain, Owen Wister and Mary Austin were afforded no such luxury. Nor were William Shakespeare, James Fennimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, F. Scott Fitzgerald or anyone else whose words saw print prior to about 1975. Perhaps it was because in the day of quill pen or Remington Standard, revisions cost the author a whole bunch of time and a full sheet of paper. Recopying three hundred words simply to change the way a character utters something or arches an eyebrow must have been rather inefficient in those days before electrons. Without a delete button, the great writers of yesteryear were disciplined to think first and write phrases later.

I HOPE THAT I'LL WRITE GOOD some day. As I look at the work of the giants that preceded our generation, I realize that just as I must read slowly to fully appreciate the genius of their work, I must write slowly, to have any chance of approximating a good story. I must think first and write phrases later.

As should most authors. Because, if today’s writers create literature that stimulates no more thought than a sit-com, will it matter if anybody reads it?

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

Monday, October 4, 2010


FROM A TINY GUARD STATION measuring about 16 by 16 feet, rangers stood watch over the wild and remote Tahoe Forest while assigned to Robinson Flat. I found this place fifteen years ago. It is where the pavement ends.

Since then, I’ve spent many pleasant afternoons “patrolling” the area with friends: hiking to Duncan Peak for the magnificent panoramic view from the active lookout; traipsing along the edge of a big burn that ran through not long ago; relaxing with a book and a bottle of wine at the edge of the meadow; pumping water from the ancient well and slaking a dusty trail thirst.

The pavement stretches back through Foresthill to Interstate 80. Beyond, the road is a question mark. An inviting sign says: “The Cedars – 17” and “Soda Springs – 25” and the invitation had gone unanswered for a decade and a half. No longer. Today, I would pretend I was stationed at the Flat and patrol the regions to the east, thinking: 25 miles? Piece of cake.

THE BMW GS ADVENTURE is built for anything any road can throw at it. My version has a button that when pushed, elevates and adjusts the suspension so that the bike more smoothly absorbs the bumps and shocks of primitive roads. I once paid less for a house than I did for this bike, so I do not wish to test the limits of the machine – especially in an area where the forest is so thick and the mountains so steep as to restrict helicopter rescue of my broken body. I am glad the road appears smooth.

It appears smooth because it has recently been watered down to limit dust from timber transport operations. It is smooth. Like cake frosting. A guy in a Peterbilt with a load of logs will have no problem. The rear wheel of the Beemer, however, begins a scary imitation of Peggy Fleming, the 1968 gold medalist in figure skating. I determine that I’ll go gingerly for a stint and not be afraid to turn back. In time, the road crosses into a less active logging area. The frosting is replaced by dust. Dust the consistency of cake flour. Smooth. Yes. The road is still smooth, but now it is surfaced in loess – windblown dust – that masks the hard ruts of a summer’s worth of heavy travel. The front wheel seeks a groove I cannot see and cannot steer out of. I drop my feet from the pegs and engage in very dangerous out-rigging.

At one point I stop to find both boots four inches deep in dust and the wheel rims of the great machine buried in the powder. I can’t muscle a turn around, so I plow forward. At an opportune wide spot and I pull over for a rest and a photo. It’s been four and a half miles and 35 minutes, but some on-foot reconnoitering shows the road ahead to be better.

And it is. Soon I find myself in second gear traveling between fifteen and twenty miles an hours. For maybe three hundred yards. Corkscrewing down into a creek drainage, the switchbacks turn wide, steep and gravelly. Counter-intuitively, I must remember to rely more heavily on the rear brake as I tiptoe down the hill. Moving from thick forest, toward the bottom, things level out as the woods have yielded to willows and dried meadow grasses. I crank up but just as quickly I throttle down. Ahead, the road drops twenty-five feet to ford a stream that has recently been crossed. The water is murky. I can’t see the bottom. I edge into it uncertainly, use my feet for outriggers once more and power up and out. The route on the other side looks as if someone bladed it with a bulldozer and called that simple action engineering. The road goes up the side of the stream bank but angles across the slope. Loose rock litters the course. Standing on the pegs, I power up knowing that if I let this thing die, there’ll be no good place to put a foot down and I’ll tumble. It’s about a two hundred yard dash. The suspension absorbs the primitive surface and I can feel rocks being spit from the back wheel. Achieving the top, I stop. Point of no return, I think and then I say aloud: “No way in hell I can go down that slope.”

THE FORMATION OF THE SIERRA is the result of a complex series of events starting as far east as the mid-Atlantic rift zone. As the North American continent is pushed westward, it collides with a static Pacific Plate. Faults and cracks form and through these, volcanic mud is squeezed up covering the surface and filling ancient riverbeds. As the pressure builds, the granitic core of the Sierra tilts as a huge block. Rising to fourteen thousand feet, with the coming of an ice age, glaciers form, chiseling and scrubbing the highest reaches.

For the past eon and a half or so, the relentless uplifting has been battled by relentless wind, rain and ice. Forming in the crevasses, meadows of silt washed down from on high. Ringing those meadows, peaks whose height yield no growing season. In between, forests of fir and pine top lodes of gold bearing quartz. Crossing it all, roads ranging from Interstate 80 to this one.

BEYOND THE CREEK, Foresthill Road scales a minor ridge. Still rough, it is frequented by this season’s deer hunters, thus better traveled and more passable. At the crest, a fine view of the Royal Gorge of the American to the east and Snow Mountain to the north. A quick descent takes me to “the Cedars,” a privately held section of rustic summer homes set about the edge of one of those mountain meadows. A large common building – perhaps a lodge held communally by summer residents invites a visit. But a “No Trespassing – Area Patrolled” sign voids the urge. Wonder whether such trespass was the purview of the ranger back at the Flat?

White cumulus clouds have gathered atop the ridge dividing the enclave of cabins from Soda Springs and I-80. Later in the day it will rain. I really want to miss the storm. I figure I’ll chug forward, but thankfully, the remaining eight miles are graded and the path fast.

THERE ARE TWO THINGS I have experienced in life that I hope never to experience again: knee surgery and divorce. Add to that: Foresthill Road from Robinson Flat to Soda Springs. Nasty, steep, dusty, rutty. But then again, spectacular and subtle. I may have to think this over.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press